The Wesner/Brewer Distillery

Jacob Wesner grave
To anyone else a pile of building stones is just debris, to me it is part of a larger story of Hoosier distilling and our legacy therein. I’ve written here many times of the old Jacob Wesner and later Adam Brewer distillery and of the connections between the distilling families of the Robertsons, Wesners, Hammersley’s, Ryman, and Brewers, usually in connection with Cave River Valley. I’ve known roughly where this old distillery was located but I myself had never been there, nor documented it.
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You see, for me, it’s important to see these places, to get a feel for how they were laid out, for what the daily lives of the people who worked here were like. I know I view this differently from most as I myself am a distiller, but I want to, need to, and seemingly do now have a better understanding of the early distilling in these Hoosier hills. For me these simple building stones can speak and are clearly alive with the memories of yesteryear, they want me to find them. If I don’t document them then who will?

First I’ll give you a little background on the Wesner Distillery. You might even want to delve back into the archives and watch the interview I did with a Wesner descendant (who was also a Henry Robertson descendant) or read the several articles I’ve written about Old Clifty, but this will give you a basic primer from a couple of different sources.

Jacob Wesner and wife the former of whom was born in Germany and came to America at an early date and located in the Twin Creek hills of Washington county Indiana where he operated a still house. Jacob Wesner was one of the most extensive distillers of the territory and worked at this together with general agricultural pursuits which he followed on his farm in Brown township – Centennial History of Washington County

The location of the last distillery here was not on the old mill site but about one fourth of a mile to the northeast. It was operated by Adam Brewer, with assistance from Charley Link until prohibition took effect in 1918/19A History of Campbellsburg Indiana

No commercial distilleries are listed as operating in Brown Township until 1860. Even then, it was not located at Clifty, but was operated a short distance east of there by a firm known as Jacob Wesner and Son. In 1960 it had produced 70 barrels of whiskey valued at $1400. This distillery seems to have been in business but a short time and possibly quit when the government started licensing the distilleries in 1866.A History of Campbellsburg Indiana

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All of this gives us some idea of where the old distillery was located along with descriptions of the existence of a foundation through oral tradition being located near Moscow cave and the cave system being known as the Stillhouse cave system.

I initially hiked into the valley on October 2’nd in hopes of searching out the distillery but started late in the evening and ran out of light, fortunately the scenery as always was beautiful and I did come across a stream bed which itself led to a small cave. I made sure to snap a couple short cell phone videos of this stream to share. I started at the location of the original Robertson distillery and then worked myself downstream (which Ironically is North East due to the unique geography of the box canyon) past where the stream for Endless Cave (which I also hiked out of curiosity) meets the stream for River Cave and down to the old damn which previously held a fish pond I believe.

The next day I returned to the valley with my friend D.J. Henderson, determined to find the foundation we hiked to my previous days ending point and started moving downstream again, checking out a couple of stream beds as we went, we eventually crossed to the west side of the river where we found a number of old well traveled wagon roads (later used for logging roads) with deep ruts cut into the earth from years of travel. All of these roads converged on a dry stream bed next to the river and a large assortment of limestone building stones that had clearly once been a building of some sort attracting a lot of local traffic. The building itself was no more and closely resembled what I saw at the original Wolfe distillery in Stillhouse hollow, the blocks had tumbled and then been pushed up in a pile (likely by loggers) Had I not known what to expect I would have completely passed up this nondescript pile of debris.

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We stopped to study the debris and landscape a bit closer and do some filming for the upcoming Hells Half Acre Documentary. As I studied the landscape a few things stuck out to me. All of the old roads led to this “building” and there was what appeared to be a dry spring up the side of the hill which could have easily have provided water to a bustling distillery years ago. Amongst the debris and set next to the river was another small pile of stones, many hand shaped, that gave every appearance of a boiler furnace. Just as in the Wolfe distillery and the Green Distillery there appeared to be a purpose to the geography with a hill to one side and a stream drainage moving through the site. I’ve seen this same set up many times, along with the old stone building, it seems that the early Hoosier distillers prefered stone buildings built next to and sometimes on top of small springs/streams, with a hill structure to facilitate gravitational flow of liquids (fermenter to still, still to either animal enclosure or stream to remove waste). Having made my determination I was 95% certain we had found the distillery but I still wanted to make my way to Moscow cave to be sure, so onward we hiked.

In about 1/8 a mile we found a stream bed and traveled up it. Water was running and two stream beds were visible, one wet, one dry. Some shaped stones were observed but nothing that screamed distillery to us. Shortly in front of us a plateu of limestone and a waterfall made it’s appearance. To the left side of this waterfall we observed some hand cut and stacked stones. If I didn’t know better I might think this was a dam at some point back and it may well have been. Atop the plateu we followed the stream to yet another waterfall atop which we found Moscow cave!

Satisfied the first site was in fact the distillery we hiked back to the truck stopping at the site on our way back to make a few more observations. As always I am glad to have yet identified another of the old distilleries and managed to help keep it’s memory and legacy alive. If this is in fact the site of the old distillery it is also the site of the great failed Paw-Paw experiment that Adam Brewer undertook and got national attention for:

Brewer made news in all the area newspapers in October 1915 with the announcement that he was going to try “an entirely new departure in the distilling line” by attempting to make some paw paw brandy. The reason for this was that the quantity of apples with which to make the noted Indiana apple-jack was very small, only enough perhaps to make 10 barrels, while it was a banner year for paw paws. Brewer expected the new product to be as good for medical purposes as apple brandy. The new product was not a smashing success. Dr. L.W. Paynter, then practicing in Campbellsburg, described it as “…the most potent liquor ever made here, equaled in kick no doubt by nothing less powerful than aguardiente or tequila, of Mexican make, was the paw paw brandy which was distilled here before the World War. It has long been my contention that any single nation engaged in that war, had it been equipped with a few thousand gallons of that paw paw brandy, could have changed history and made over the map of Europe to its own liking, such was the potency of this distillate. But the memories aroused through mention of this brandy, and the ludicrous incidents attendant upon the treatment of some of my patients who had imbibed too freely of it, have caused me to wonder far afield from my subject.” Charles E. Cook, who worked on Dr. Paynter’s farm at the time for 50 cents a day, later reported that one day he took some of Doc’s apples out to Clifty. As was the custom of the times, he received his payment partly in cash and partly in brandy. This time the brandy happened to be of the new paw paw variety. According to Cook, Brewer had “gotten the proof high enough, but could not get the poison out”. As a result, Cook’s eyes, face, and tongue became badly swollen: the same results being experienced by several others who drank the brandy, according to Cook. – History of Campbellsburg Indiana

Sadly Adam Brewer was one of the few pre-prohibition Hoosier Distillers who had grand plans to return from prohibition by restarting the old Clifty distillery and mill. In 1931 he was delivering a wagon load of corn down the large hill into the valley to mill for whiskey production when the wagon overturned and killed him. He is buried at the Hop-Thompson cemetery about a half mile south of the old distillery.
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I should mention the names here of a few other Brown Township distillers and also make note for future research that there is yet another still house identified not far from the valley, though the proprieter is unknown to me at this time, just south west of the valley at the corner of Middle District and Marshall road is another cave spring known as Stillhouse Cave, I hope to find more information on this location in the near future.

ALONZO S. WILCOX
A prominent citizen and native of Brown Township, was born February 14, 1839, being the fifth child of a family of seventeen children born to Hiram and Julia (Clarke) Wilcox, who were natives of the State of Vermont, the former of English-Irish, and the latter French-Scotch descent. Alonzo remained at home and assisted this parents on the farm until he attained the age of thirty-five years. He received a common education such as the facilities of his day afforded. June 16, 1879, his marriage with Elizabeth O’Harrow was solemnized, and to their union the following three children have been born: Mary L., Maud and Otis Otho. His occupation has been principally farming, in connection with which he did some distilling, and operated a saw and grist-mill. He also raised considerable stock, and he has been quite successful in those pursuits. He now owns 1,400 acres of land, of which the greater part is improved. In politics he is very liberal in his ideas, preferring to vote with that party which in his judgment will best contribute to the country’s good.

History of Lawrence, Orange and Washington Counties, Indiana

HUGH MCFLEMING
A prominent old citizen of Brown Township, is a native of Ontario County, N.Y., where he was born July 8, 1807, being the fifth child of a family of nine children born to James and Jane (McNeall) Fleming, who were natives respectively of Ireland and Pennsylvania, and came to this State about the year 1817, and settled in this county on the farm now owned and occupied by our subject. Hugh always lived at the old homestead, and received a limited education in the primitive log schoolhouses of his day. October 10, 1860, his marriage with Ageline Jean was solemnized, and to their union the following four children have been born: Jane, Mary E. (who was united in marriage to Millard Jean), Phoebe E. and Bellona. Previous to the date of his marriage he followed wagon-making and distilling in connection with his farming, since which time he has quit distilling. He has been quite successful in these various pursuits, and now owns over 600 acres, about half of which are yet in timber. Mrs. Fleming and children are members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In politics he is a Republican, having been connected with the party since its organization.

History of Lawrence, Orange and Washington Counties, Indiana
copyright 1884 Goodspeed Brothers and Company, Chicago

The following name has been mentioned from time to time with the Brewer/Wesner distillery as well, perhaps he was once even proprieter. I do know that he worked some time as the head man/distiller at the Robertson distillery and was there when the boiler exploded:

LEWIS R. SHROYER
A prominent citizen of Brown Township, is a native of Iroquois County, Ill., where he was born August 25, 1841, being the oldest of three children born to John D. and Matilda (Roberts) Shroyer. His parents were both natives of this county and township. After their marriage they removed to Illinois, where the former died, and his mother returned to this State, where she lived with her parents. Lewis received a common school education such as the schools of his day afforded. August 2, 1862, he realized the necessity of the preservation of our Union, and enlisted as a volunteer private in Company A, Sixty-sixth Regiment Volunteer Infantry, where he served for a period of three years, and was discharged in June, 1865, on account of cessation of hostilities. He was present at the following important engagements: Richmond, where he received a gun-shot wound which prevented him from serving for about three months, Resaca, Dallas, Kenesaw Mountain, Atlanta, Bentonville, N.C. December 21, 1865, his marriage with Lovisa Hammersly was solemnized, and to their union four children were born: Mary E., Sarah, Emma and Nora, all at home. October 17, 1877, Mr. Shroyer suffered the bereavement of losing his beloved wife. September 21, 1880, his nuptials with Martha Davison were celebrated, and their union has been blessed with three children: Edith, John D. and Zellah. His occupation has always been farming, and he has been quite successful; he now owns 200 acres of improved land. When a baby, Mr. Shroyer was christened in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In politics he is a stanch Republican, and he takes an active interest in the political affairs of the community in which he lives.

History of Lawrence, Orange and Washington Counties, Indiana

Also, our interview with Larry Wesner

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One thought on “The Wesner/Brewer Distillery

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  1. I enjoyed the Adam Brewer piece. He was my grandpa Milo’s brother. They worked together and grandpa liked making the peach brandy best. They were jailed for moonshining during prohibition for 30 days. Adam died bringing a load of corn from his brother Noah’s farm when he turned over the load. He was by all accounts sampling his brew at the time.

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